An eight-month investigation by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims that Petland stores nationwide sell puppies they obtain from puppy mills--despite statements by the company that its dogs come from reliable breeders.

HSUS officials announced those and other findings from its largest puppy mill investigation during a press conference on Thursday.

The HSUS's findings come just days after Petland assured that it buys its puppies from expert breeders licensed professional pet distributors, "who have years of experience in raising quality pets."

Petland reiterated those comments today and called the HSUS's investigation "sensationalism at its best."

But HSUS officials said their investigation uncovered evidence that shows Petland's main sources of puppies are puppy mills -- mass commercial breeding operations that churn out two to four million puppies each year.

Those puppies are raised in deplorable conditions and often have health problems, genetic defects, and behavioral issues, according to the HSUS.

During its investigation, HSUS investigators visited 21 Petland stores nationwide. At each of those stores, employees told HSUS investigators that its puppies came from reliable, USDA breeders.

HSUS investigators also tracked the sale of nearly 17,000 puppies sold at Petland stores across the country and found nearly every one of those dogs was shipped hundreds of miles from puppy mills in the Midwest.

Most of those breeding operations had numerous violations with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency charged with inspecting dog breeders.

"Petland is perpetuating the abusive puppy mill industry, where dogs are treated not like pets, but like a cash crop," said Stephanie Shain, the HSUS's puppy mill expert and director of its Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. "They know that consumers won't stand for the cruelty inherent in mass-breeding facilities, so they make outrageous claims to hide the reality that the dogs came from puppy mills. People have a right to know exactly what they are buying, but the real victims are the breeding dogs who are confined to life in a cage for as long as people are duped into buying their puppies."

The HSUS made the following claims from its investigation:

• Many Petland puppies come from massive commercial breeders in Missouri and other Midwestern states, where hundreds of breeding dogs are packed into cramped, cages--often for their entire lives -- with no socialization, exercise, or human interaction. But Petland's employees--and even its corporate Web site-- claim the company knows its breeders and deals only with those who have "the highest standards of pet care."

• 35 of the large-scale breeding operations linked to Petland stores that HSUS officials visited were puppy mills. "At many, investigators saw appalling conditions: puppies living in filthy, barren cages reeking of urine, with inadequate care and socialization," HSUS officials said.

• Petland buys many of its puppies from "middle men" -- large-scale pet distributors that are often called brokers. "The company may not even know who the breeders are or what their standards of care may be like," HSUS officials said. Investigators also learned that some of Petland's brokers also buy from puppy mills.

• Petland buys some of its puppies from an online pet auction Web site. "Many Petland stores are not screening breeders as the company's Web site claims," HSUS officials said. "In fact, in some cases it may not even know the breeder's name until after purchase."

• Petland often tells consumers that it uses "USDA licensed" breeders -- and use that claim as a shield to hide the truth. But HSUS investigators reviewed the publicly available USDA inspection reports and state reports for more than 100 Petland breeders. They found more than 60 percent of those reports listed serious violations of basic animal care regulations. "Many USDA breeders exhibit a long history of substandard care and yet remained licensed," HSUS officials said. "While USDA regulations are minimal, some of the Petland breeders are not even complying with these basic animal welfare standards."

• Some of Petland's breeders and suppliers had numerous USDA violations. For example, they were dirty, had unkempt enclosures, inadequate shelter from the cold, poor veterinary care, and housed many dogs in cages that were too small. Some breeders also had sick or dead dogs in their cages.

"We are nation of dog lovers," said Michael Markarian, executive vice-president of the HSUS. "And people are going to be shocked by what we foundthey won't stand for this."

Markarian called on Petland--a company HSUS officials describe as the No.1 retail supporter of puppy mills -- to stop selling puppies in its stores.

He also urged the company to join other pet retailers, like PETCO and PetSmart, which let animal shelters hold animal adoptions in their stores.

"As we lead into the holiday season, when many people think about getting a puppy, we wanted to let them know about the dark side of this (pet) industry," Markarian said. "And we are calling on Petland to be socially responsible."

"Sensationalism at its best"

Petland spokesperson Lacey Clever defended the company's practices.

"At Petland, healthy, happy, well-socialized pets within our care are our number one priority as they have been for 41 years," Clever said. "We do not support substandard breeding facilities and we provide each Petland store with "Humane Care Guidelines," that were developed in conjunction with the USDA to assist with breeder facility inspections as it pertains to pet selection."

Clever also criticized the HSUS's investigation, and the timing of its release.

"Reports such as those posted on the HSUS Web site surface every year around the holiday season in conjunction with their annual fundraising efforts," she wrote. "Unfortunately, we were not interviewed or consulted nor were we a part of any of the editing process.

"This is sensationalism at its best," Clever added. "HSUS has a history of publicizing false information in an effort to raise money. They do not operate a single pet shelter or pet adoption facility anywhere in the U.S. To the contrary, over the last 10 years, Petland has adopted out more than 270,000 homeless puppies and kittens nationwide."

During an interview earlier this week with, Clever echoed many of those sentiments.

She also told us that Petland representatives inspect their distributors' and breeders' facilities.

"In addition, these facilities are licensed and inspected by the federal government (USDA)," she said. "We require that our franchisees buy only from Petland, Inc. associated facilities. We even encourage our franchisees to visit facilities for themselves."

Petland, she said, even has a "Do Not Buy List" of breeders that operate substandard facilities.

And the company encourages its customers to adopt from local animal shelters. "We have an Adopt-A-Pet program that enables our stores to partner with local shelters and rescue groups on whatever level works for them," Clever said. "Some stores have fundraisers and donation drives for their local shelters while others have a more intense partnership, providing kennel space for shelter animals."

Petland, she said, is also taking action to put substandard breeding operations out of business.

"(We) want to be part of the solution in regards to substandard facilities, which is why we are out there inspecting facilities and making sure that our puppies come from happy, loving environments," Clever said. "As an industry leader, we hope that others follow this example and soon these facilities will no longer be in business."

"Don't be fooled"

"We're calling on consumers to not be fooled by the assurances they hear from Petland," said the HSUS's Markarian. "If they tell you that they only get their dogs from the best breeders, don't be fooled. We found that in many cases they are buying puppies from middleman and brokers -- and they may not even know who the breeder is."

HSUS officials said they will continue their investigation and determine in any charges can be filed in connection with their findings.

Consumers can learn more about the HSUS's Petland investigation -- and view a video about its findings -- on the organization's Web site.